Missional Church Part II

28 05 2008

Alan Roxburgh continues his discussion of missional church by describing the four primary strands that form the rope that harnesses the explanation of its characteristics and meaning:

  • Western society as a mission field
  • Mission is about the missio dei
  • Missional church is about the nature and purpose of the church
  • Missional church is a contrast society

1) Western society as a mission field: As indicated in the introduction, the language of missional church has to do with the recognition that somehow the Western societies are now themselves a mission field. This is saying something more than simply needing new evangelism tactics. To a large extent modern evangelism was practiced from within a context in which people generally took it for granted that the Christian story was a normative, regulative part of the cultural backdrop within which they lived. Put simply, most folks knew the basic story in one form or another. Evangelism was about understanding why they no longer accepted or lived in the story, developing a form of presentation or apologetic which addressed those issues and pressing for commitment. Evangelism assumed an environment of prior Christian understanding or background.

The use of missional language is to suggest that this memory of the Christian story as the essential background to evangelism is, in most Western societies, essentially lost and can no longer be taken for granted. In this sense, most Western societies are post-Christian and are mission fields. We can no longer assume that the Gospel story is part of the cultural narrative of people. Now this is more-or-less the situation. Certainly, in Europe and England it is the case that the Christian story is all but a faint and vague memory that has no shaping power in people’s lives except among increasingly small minorities. In 2002 a major British tabloid published a front-page interview with a Catholic bishop in that country. The headline quote was: Christianity has almost expired in the UK! Stark language but not inaccurate. The same comment could be made for most of Western Europe.

The majority of the emerging generation in Canada is growing into adulthood with no memory of the Christian narrative. What must be emphasized here is that twenty-five years ago this was not the case in Canada. The corrosive forces of change that had been building up for decades under the surface of popular culture suddenly reached the tipping point and rapidly transformed the culture. The dislodging of Christian life in Canada from the mainstream to the margins has been astoundingly rapid. Canada is not unlike America where the same kind of thing can and will happen. Thus, the missional language was created in order to emphasize that we are confronted with a radically new challenge in the West. We are not in a situation that requires minor adjustments and course corrections. We’re not in a place where simply planting thousands more churches or changing existing congregations to seeker-driven outlets or developing methodologies for natural church growth, is going to address the massive changes now transforming the landscape of the West. We need to fundamentally rethink the frameworks and paradigms that have shaped the church over the last half-century. The basic stance of denominations and congregations must be transformed to that of missionaries in their own culture. This requires far more than adjustment. It calls for a radically new kind of church.

2) Mission is about the missio dei: Latin phrases may not be the most appropriate form of communication in the 21st century, but this one does capture a theme central to the missional conversation. If the West, including North America, is once again a mission field within which the central narratives of the Gospel have been either lost or profoundly compromised by other values and stories, then the focus of this mission is the God who has encountered us in Jesus Christ-the One whom we confess in the Trinitarian confession of Father, Son and Spirit. This may seem like such an obvious statement that it needs no comment; however, this is not the case. The missional conversation is convinced that throughout Western societies, and most especially in North America, there has occurred a fundamental shift in the locus of the understanding and practice of the Christian story. It is no longer about God and what God is about in the world; it is about how God serves and meets human need. More specifically, the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ has become the spiritual food court for the personal, private, inner needs of expressive individuals. The result is a debased, compromised, Gnostic form of Christianity which is not the Gospel at all.

The biblical narratives are about God’s mission in, through and for the sake of the world. The focus of attention is toward God not the other way around. The missio dei is about a theocentric rather than anthropocentric understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection which itself, as the apocalyptic engagement of God with the world, breaks into creation in order to call forth that which was promised from the beginning-that in this Jesus all things will be brought back together and made new. The focus of this movement is doxological. It is not about, in the modern, Western, expressive individualist sense, meeting my needs. The personal pronoun is not the subject of the narrative; God is the subject.

This is a fundamental element in the missional conversation. Enough has been written about this issue of the locus and intention of the Gospel and its debasement to an individualistic, needs-centered story in North America that it doesn’t require further expansion in this brief essay. But whenever this part of the conversation takes place, it creates consternation and confusion among both clergy and laity alike. If, they ask, the Gospel isn’t about the individualistic, personal-need-focus of expressive individuals in North America, then what is the nature of the Gospel? The question reveals the level at which our framework must be radically changed in order for the people in North America to hear and practice the Christian narrative once again. There can be no minimizing the level of the change required for the Gospel to be heard again in the West. The language of missional was coined in order to capture and express a) the locus of the Gospel on God and God’s actions, b) the depth of the compromise that has overtaken Christian life and c) the extent of the challenge we face in addressing this situation.

(to be continued…  Alan’s 3rd and 4th strands will be posted in “Missional Church Part III”)

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